Katja Beth

Buck­wheat – The unknown Russ­ian

When Rus­sia is men­tioned, most peo­ple think of cher­nozem soils and vast wheat fields. Few peo­ple are aware that buck­wheat reveals a great deal about the Russ­ian soul. This becomes clear at the very lat­est when you sit down to eat. Because Russ­ian cui­sine with­out buck­wheat is unthink­able.

The scent of hon­ey wafts in the air. This is no sur­prise, as we’re stand­ing in the mid­dle of a flow­er­ing white buck­wheat field with the blos­som emit­ting this intense aro­ma. Bees, enticed here by the scent and the nec­tar secret­ed by the plants, vis­it them dur­ing the long flow­er­ing phase from July to Sep­tem­ber. Nature was clever to do this, as com­mon buck­wheat (Fagopy­rum escu­len­tum) is reliant on cross-fer­til­i­sa­tion by insects.

Arable farmer Vladimir Ivanovich Shashkov annu­al­ly grows 500ha (1,200ac) of buck­wheat.

The field that seems to stretch to the hori­zon belongs to Vladimir Ivanovich Shashkov. Of course, the area is not quite that big. His largest field mea­sures a whole 280ha, though the aver­age size is “only” 140ha (345ac). Over­all, the Russ­ian cul­ti­vates an area of approx­i­mate­ly 3,400ha (8,400ac), yet this makes him one of the small­er agri­cul­tur­al busi­ness­es, not includ­ing self-suf­fi­cient farm­ers. Those who want to belong to the large busi­ness­es need to have hectares in five or six-dig­it fig­ures. Euro­peans should not be too impressed by this either, since the colos­sal Rus­sia, span­ning 6.5m mi2, is about as large as Europe and the USA togeth­er.

Crop rota­tion and fal­low­ing

Every year, farmer Shashkov grows approx­i­mate­ly 500ha (1,200ac) of buck­wheat. This makes him one of the larg­er pro­duc­ers of this mod­est fruit seed. Here in the area around Borilo­va, a small town near Ory­ol, around 220mi south of Moscow, wheat is the dom­i­nant crop.

We are try­ing to cul­ti­vate vari­eties that will become more tol­er­ant to cold.

Vladimir Ivanovičh Šašhkov

Why is he grow­ing this ther­mophilic crop? “It suits my crop rota­tion, which is made up of wheat, buck­wheat, rye, rape­seed and fal­low fields,” said Shashkov. Ulti­mate­ly, buck­wheat is not a grain but like rhubarb, it belongs to the knotweed fam­i­ly. The name of the plant and its brown tri­an­gu­lar fruit comes from its sim­i­lar­i­ty to beech­nuts. An advan­tage for the crop farmer is the late sow­ing, from mid to the end of May, as this fits in well with his work sched­ule. This is because buck­wheat is very sen­si­tive to the cold and can­not tol­er­ate frost. The fruit seed only begins to ger­mi­nate and grow at 8 degrees C, but then it hap­pens quick­ly. “In the mean­time we are try­ing to cul­ti­vate vari­eties that will become more tol­er­ant to cold,” he said.

Although “the queen of soils”, or cher­nozem, is right under our feet, our con­ver­sa­tion does not then turn to record har­vests, but instead the oppo­site. Why are fal­low fields in his crop rota­tion? Is it not real­ly a sin to leave such soil fal­low? “I don’t just have cher­nozem, I also have sandy and loamy areas. How­ev­er, the deci­sive fac­tor is that with­out a var­ied crop rota­tion, includ­ing fal­low fields, I can­not farm crops on a long-term basis. The soil has to with­stand extreme tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions here from +30 degrees C in the sum­mer and -30 degrees C in the win­ter,” replied Shashkov. Fal­low cher­nozem fields are com­mon through­out Rus­sia, usu­al­ly on a three-year­ly cere­al crop cycle.

From the field to the kitchen

Buck­wheat is not only a favourite in the field, but also in Russ­ian cui­sine. On aver­age, each Russ­ian con­sumes 5kg of it a year, accord­ing to a report from the Moscow Times. A com­mon sta­ple food, “gretch­ka” as it is called in Russ­ian, fea­tures in the morn­ing as groats or por­ridge for break­fast. It can also be a side dish for meat and fish dur­ing the day and a stand-alone dish with mush­rooms or made into a pan­cake.

Buck­wheat is an impor­tant part of Russ­ian cui­sine, usu­al­ly cooked for eat­ing. The flour is main­ly used for mak­ing pan­cakes.

The com­mon fea­ture in all recipes is that the seeds are used only in their husked form. From a nutri­tion­al and phys­i­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, buck­wheat is also attrac­tive as it con­tains a lot of starch, high-val­ue pro­tein, vit­a­min B and var­i­ous trace ele­ments. As it is gluten free, the plant is also a suit­able food for peo­ple with an intol­er­ance or aller­gy.

Use as a clean­ing crop

Niko­lay Eugenye­vich Matyushenko is anoth­er farmer who reg­u­lar­ly grows buck­wheat. He lives with his wife in the Korenevsky Dis­trict, which is part of the Kursk admin­is­tra­tive region. His chil­dren are grown up and do not work in farm­ing. How­ev­er, the farmer hopes that one day they will join him in the 2,000ha (5,000ac) farm busi­ness. Like oth­er farm­ers, Matyushenko does not live on the farm, but a few kilo­me­tres away from it.

A pri­vate­ly-run agri­cul­tur­al busi­ness does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly have a com­plete farm­stead – its more a kind of park­ing space with old­er farm-build­ings.

Unlike in Europe, a pri­vate­ly-run agri­cul­tur­al busi­ness does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly have a com­plete farm­stead with a house, build­ings and machin­ery shed. In Rus­sia there is more like­ly to be a kind of park­ing space with old­er farm build­ings that are gen­er­al­ly used as a place for stor­ing machines and a work­shop. There is also always hous­ing for employ­ees and often silos for stor­ing the grain after the har­vest­ed.

Niko­lay Eugenye­vich Matyushenko does not live on his farm but a few kilo­me­ters away in the near­est vil­lage.

Speak­ing of staff, is it hard to find employ­ees in such a rur­al area? “I have 18 mem­bers of staff and every­thing is going well at the moment. How­ev­er, there have been times where peo­ple have come and gone – either of their own accord or because they had to,” the trained agron­o­mist remem­bered, who seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to become self-employed at the end of the Sovi­et Union. As he had pre­vi­ous­ly had a lead­er­ship role in a “kolkhoz”, a col­lec­tive farm, he did not find it too dif­fi­cult to man­age a farm. Yet it took sev­er­al years before he was proud to be a self-employed farmer, which he open­ly admits. The rea­son for this being that farm­ing does not have the best image, par­tic­u­lar­ly with young peo­ple. They move to towns after they fin­ish school to find work.

But let’s return to buck­wheat. What are his moti­va­tions for grow­ing it? “It is a gen­uine clean­ing crop,” said Matyushenko. Because of the crop’s quick growth, it sup­press­es weeds and also com­bats sug­ar beet nema­todes. Both of these attrib­ut­es suit Matyushenko’s crop rota­tion per­fect­ly which, in addi­tion to sug­ar beet, also includes wheat, bar­ley, soya, maize, sun­flow­ers and lupines.

Tough har­vest­ing dead­lines

Once again, the air smells like hon­ey. This time we are stand­ing with Vik­tor Niko­layevich Petrov on one of his buck­wheat fields. The farmer explains that there’s no way to dis­miss this annu­al crop if you car­ry out crop rota­tion seri­ous­ly. Because the crop has nei­ther spe­cif­ic require­ments from the soil nor the fer­til­i­sa­tion, and it is well self-tol­er­at­ing.

In con­trast, things are some­what more com­pli­cat­ed for har­vests that may be ready at the end of August, depend­ing on when it was sown. As the plant can grow new flow­ers and leaves right to the end with­out inter­rup­tion, it is not easy to ascer­tain the best har­vest date. As a rule, har­vest­ing can be done when around 80% of the seeds are ripe. In prac­tice, farm­ers use con­ven­tion­al com­bine har­vester tech­niques for grains.

Alter­na­tive­ly, they first cut the buck­wheat and then lay it on windrows in order to per­form the col­lec­tion and thresh­ing lat­er on with a pick-up attach­ment. Vik­tor Niko­layevich Petrov con­sid­ers that every year is dif­fer­ent and each har­vest is a new expe­ri­ence: “Buck­wheat is like women. One life­time is not enough to under­stand this plant.”

In con­trast, things are some­what more com­pli­cat­ed for har­vests that may be ready at the end of August, depend­ing on when it was sown. As the plant can grow new flow­ers and leaves right to the end with­out inter­rup­tion, it is not easy to ascer­tain the best har­vest date. As a rule, har­vest­ing can be done when around 80% of the seeds are ripe. In prac­tice, farm­ers use con­ven­tion­al com­bine har­vester tech­niques for grains.

Buck­wheat is like women. One life­time is not enough to under­stand this plant.

Vik­tor Niko­la­je­vich Petrov

Alter­na­tive­ly, they first cut the buck­wheat and then lay it on windrows in order to per­form the col­lec­tion and thresh­ing lat­er on with a pick-up attach­ment. Vik­tor Niko­layevich Petrov con­sid­ers that every year is dif­fer­ent and each har­vest is a new expe­ri­ence: “Buck­wheat is like women. One life­time is not enough to under­stand this plant.”